Home > The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(4)

The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(4)
Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

Sitting side by side on the usual overstuffed armchairs – some of them originals, retrieved from the old Datum Home – were Nelson Azikiwe and Lobsang.

Lobsang, or at least this ambulant avatar, with shaven head and bare feet, was dressed in what had become his trademark garb of orange robe. Sally was briskly introduced to Nelson. South African born, a former clergyman now in his fifties, he was dressed comparatively soberly, in a suit and tie. This ill-matched pair were balancing china teacups on their knees, and plates bearing slices of cake. A younger Sister whom Joshua didn’t recognize was fussing around, serving.

And Shi-mi the cat was here. She came to Joshua, favouring him with a brush against his legs, and she glared at Sally with LED-green eyes.

As Joshua and Sally sat down, Agnes joined the circle, and Sister John and her young companion served up more tea and cake. Agnes said, ‘Well, this was my idea, Joshua. In this moment of comparative calm – now that the latest global panic, when we all thought we were going to be driven to extinction by super-brain children, has somewhat subsided – my plan was to bring Lobsang here, and to gather his friends together for once.’

Sally scowled. ‘“Friends”? Is that how you think of us, Lobsang? We’re gaming tokens to you, more like. Dimes to feed the slot machine of fate.’

Nelson grinned. ‘Quite so, Ms Linsay. But here we all are, even so.’

‘Friends,’ Agnes said firmly. ‘What else is there in this life but friends and family?’

Lobsang, calm, rather blank-faced, said, ‘Your own family is making waves just now, Sally. Your father at least, with his ideas of a new kind of space development.’

‘Ah, yes, dear old Papa, dreaming of using his Martian beanstalks to open up access to space. A straight-line path to massive industrialization.’

‘Willis Linsay is wise, in his way. We should build up again, from this low base we’ve been reduced to by Yellowstone. As fast and as cleanly as we can, and space elevators will make that possible. After all we may some day need to compete with the Next.’

Nelson asked, ‘What do you know about the Next, Lobsang? I know they made some kind of contact with you. Is there any more than you’ve said publicly?’

‘Only that they’ve gone. All those brilliant children, emerging all over the Datum, all over the Long Earth – the next step in human evolution – that our government rounded up and put in a pen on Hawaii. Gone to a place they call the Grange, out in the Long Earth somewhere. I couldn’t even speculate where.’

Sally laughed. ‘They didn’t tell you? They just left you to clear up their mess at Happy Landings, didn’t they? This is twisting you up, isn’t it, Lobsang? The omnipresent, omniscient god of the Long Earth, reduced to a messenger boy, by children.’

Joshua made to hush her.

But Lobsang said, ‘No, let her speak. She’s right. This has been a difficult time for me. You know that as well as anybody, Joshua. And in fact that’s the reason I allowed Agnes to call you all together.’

Agnes stiffened. ‘Oh, you allowed it, did you? And there was me thinking this was all my idea.’

Lobsang looked at them in turn, at Sally, Nelson, Joshua, Agnes, Sister John. ‘You are my family. That’s how I think of you all. Yet you have family ties of your own. You mustn’t neglect them.’ He turned to Nelson. ‘You, too, are not as alone as you thought you were, my friend.’

Nelson looked intrigued rather than offended at this opacity. ‘Textbook enigmatic. Typical Lobsang!’

‘I don’t mean to be obscure. If you just think back to when we went to New Zealand—’

Evidently frustrated at this hijacking of her party, Agnes interrupted sharply. ‘Lobsang, if you’ve something to say you’d better get to the point.’

Lobsang sat forward, shoulders hunched. Suddenly he looked, to Joshua, unaccountably old. Old and tired. ‘Yellowstone, and the collapse of the Datum, were hard for me. I suffuse the Long Earth, I have iterations scattered across the solar system, but my centre of gravity was always Datum Earth. Now the Datum itself is grievously wounded. And so, as a consequence, am I.’ He pressed his thumbs into his temples. ‘Sometimes I feel incomplete. As if I am losing memories, and then losing the memory of the loss itself … Yellowstone to me was like a lobotomy.

‘Since then I have had – doubts. I told you of this, Joshua. I have had the odd sensation that I remembered my previous incarnations. But that is not the accepted norm, under the Tibetan tradition; if my reincarnation has been fully successful I should shed all memory of my previous lives. Perhaps this reincarnation is imperfect, then. Or,’ he glanced at Agnes, ‘perhaps there is some more mundane explanation. I am after all nothing but a creature of electrical sparks in distributed stores of Black Corporation gel. Perhaps I have been hacked.

‘And then came the Next, and their verdict on me. Before all this, I imagined I would become – yes, Sally! – omnipresent, omniscient. Why not? All of mankind’s computer systems, all communications, would ultimately be integrated into one entity – into me. And I would cradle all of you in safety and warmth, for evermore.’

Sally snorted. ‘An evermore of subordination? No thanks.’

He looked at her sadly. ‘But what of me? Without my dream I am nothing.’

Carefully he put down his teacup.

Agnes was clearly alarmed by this small gesture. ‘What do you mean, Lobsang? What are you going to do?’

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